How can some of the planet’s best-educated, most sophisticated people reject science in favor of Internet-powered myths and anecdotes? That’s the question New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter posed at a recent TED Conference. You can view Specter’s 16-minute-long presentation here.
By way of example, Specter discusses the public debate surrounding measles vaccines and the increasing incidence of childhood autism in the United States. He searched the scientific literature and found no evidence of a correlation. In fact, despite rising rates of autism, Specter reports that the U.S. is the only country in the developed world in which the percentage of the population vaccinated against measles is actually declining, refuting purported links between vaccines and autism. He cites “denialism,” as exemplified by the debate concerning vaccines and autism, as a significant threat to human progress.
Fears often defeat facts
Those of us who work in agriculture can empathize with Specter’s frustrations over the power of denialism. Whether it’s the supposed threat of genetically modified foods, or modern agriculture in general, people often let their bias and fears win out over the facts. I know from my own experience that telling city people you work in agriculture can raise a lot of questions in a social setting!
As Specter says, “We’ve never needed scientific progress more than we do now and yet we battle progress. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts.”
This has never been more true than with regard to the public perception of modern agriculture. As the imperative to feed a growing population intensifies, so does public resistance to food production methods.
If you are interested in learning more about how attitudes to science can influence public opinion – including perceptions of modern agriculture – check out Specter’s book: Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms The Planet and Threatens Our Lives.
For those of us who work in agriculture, helping our industry to overcome public denialism may be the most important contribution we can make to ensure that future generations have access to food, fuel and fiber.